Tripwire –
The Trump Dilemma in Syria

President Trump’s pattern of military force brings to mind another set of decisions nearly 6 decades ago, decisions that may have saved us from nuclear war.

I can tell you right now, I don’t see any way around hitting them.

If we hit ’em, kill a lot of Russians, they’ll move against Berlin. All right, they attack Berlin, that’s NATO, and we’re at war.

– Script for the film Thirteen Days

That was a re-enactment of decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States had photographic proof that the Soviet Union had placed into Cuba missiles that were to be armed with nuclear warheads. The only available option seemed to be attacking the missiles before they became operational. If we attacked after they were armed and ready to launch, we could destroy most of them. But if just one or two remained, millions of Americans would die.

But even destroying all of them carried an end-of-days type danger.

If we hit ’em, kill a lot of Russians, they’ll move against Berlin … that’s NATO, and we’re at war.

The world’s super powers were always concerned with tripwires. The United States had constructed an entire doctrine based on the concept.

In 1945, President Harry Truman was faced with a dilemma. The Soviet Union was taking over one country after another. Eastern Europe was gone. The eastern section of Germany had been conquered by the USSR.

There didn’t seem to be any reasonable way to stop them from marching on. West Berlin was in the heart of East Germany, completely surrounded, militarily indefensible. Western Europe was vulnerable. Their armies were depleted by World War II and they were no match for Soviet armed might.

The United States had the ability to attack with nuclear weapons, at least for the couple of years before spies in the US working for the Kremlin managed to get atomic secrets and send them to the USSR. But nobody really believed the United States would launch a nuclear war on behalf of Europe as long as America itself was not attacked. After the Soviet Union got atomic bombs of their own, deterrence might have been a distant fantasy. You can’t deter with a threat that nobody really believes.

But Truman, then Eisenhower, found a way to make the not-believable threat believable. Compelling, actually. It was simple. The United States formed NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in partnership with Western European countries that had not been taken over by the Soviet Union. Then the US placed a substantial number of American troops into West Berlin and member countries of Europe.

The additional troops were still no match for Soviet military might. But everyone knew a Soviet attack would result in large scale American casualties. And everyone believed, most importantly the Kremlin believed, that American deaths would result in American retaliation. You kill a few thousand of ours in an act of aggression, we’ll kill several million of yours, even if we are faced with your nuclear response.

The not-believable nuclear deterrence became compellingly believable.

Once the Soviet Union got the bomb, the reverse was also true. Any military move to free countries that had become Soviet satellites would kill Soviet soldiers, most probably triggering a nuclear war.

Everyone believed in tripwires. We did, they did, everyone in the hemisphere did. Nuclear deterrence didn’t work against indigenous movements, like Vietnam or Cuba. Local leaders didn’t much care about tripwires. But NATO did keep a lot of people from falling under the rule of Soviet imposed dictatorships.

Tripwires were important.

And tripwires were the key to the strategy eventually adopted by President Kennedy in Cuba. We held back on attacking missile bases before they went nuclear, because we would be killing Russians and starting a war that nobody could stop.

If we … kill a lot of Russians, they’ll move against Berlin … that’s NATO, and we’re at war.

So the government got creative. Kennedy announced a naval blockade. It was a jerry-rigged sort of mini-tripwire. If Soviet ships supplying Cuba ran the blockade, shots would be fired at Americans of the coast of Florida. If Soviet or American naval personnel were killed or wounded, escalation was probable, maybe inevitable.

In the end, there were secret side deals involving obsolete Jupiter missiles in Turkey, but essentially, leaders in the Kremlin looked into the darkest abyss and opted for survival.

Tripwires seemed to be everywhere in those days. I recall being marched into hallways with other children in drills. In case of an attack we were trained to duck and cover. The retrospective joke has been around for decades, based on how we were instructed, as children, in those days.

File into the hallway.
Sit, facing the wall.
With both hands, pull your head between your legs.

And kiss your ass goodbye.

Tripwires had to be taken seriously. They still are.

That is why the recent American missile attack against the Assad dictatorship in Syria was so ineffective.

Chemical attacks launched by the Assad regime had killed 70 Syrian civilians. The 70 included small children. The television images were ghastly.

American missiles hit the airfields that seemed to be the launching points. But not much damage was done.

President Trump had notified Vladimir Putin of the coming attack in time to get Russian personnel away from the targets. This had the virtue of not getting Russian troops killed, triggering military clashes between the world’s two main nuclear powers.

In turn, Putin notified Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in time to get his troops and planes and military hardware out of the way. So what was there left for our missiles to hit, aside from the ground. The damaged airfields were reportedly back in operation within hours.

President Trump is getting a lot of support from the public for acting boldly.

…I think Donald Trump became President of the United States…

…I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons…

Some international leaders were happy at what is called proportionality. In the end, we may find the missile attack on Assad and his deadly chemicals was little more than a case of military chest thumping.

A few years ago, President Obama reacted to a much more massive chemical attack. This did not result in 70 civilian casualties, but rather 1400.

He maneuvered a more amplified sort of military dare. He delayed on what may have been the pretext of seeking congressional approval, while insisting he had authority to launch an attack that would have been several times the size of President Trump’s recent missile launch.

That prospective action got Russia’s Putin to pressure Bashar al-Assad into an agreement to a ban on the use of chemical weapons.

The agreement was never violated while President Obama was in office.

The threat of attack was criticized by most Republicans. Some denounced Obama for holding back on an actual attack. A few, like then citizen Donald Trump, condemned President Obama for even considering an attack on Syria’s dictatorship. As candidate, then as President, Donald Trump went even further, denigrating refugee children from Syria, children fleeing those attacks, publicly attacking those children as the real threat to the United States.

There does exist in human nature an unfortunate inverse reaction to tragic death, to aggressive destruction. An attack on 70 civilians, with the bodies of children shown on television, is a human tragedy. An earlier attack on 1400 civilians with many more children, is a number.

70 is an outrage. 1400 is a statistic.

What portends real danger to the United States is how decisions are made by the new administration.

An attack on a terrorist base in Yemen was quickly approved by Donald Trump as he enjoyed dinner a little more than a week after becoming President. He wanted to show American resolve against terrorism. There was a new sheriff in town, and something had to be done right away to show it.

Planning turned out to be inadequate. Intelligence had not been checked. Return fire was much heavier than expected. A multi-million dollar advanced military helicopter was lost. An American warrior was killed. So were civilians nearby, including children. It was a disaster.

Two months later, another plan was accelerated to bomb suspected terrorist holdouts as the Iraq city of Mosul was taken back from Islamic fanatics. Pamphlets were dropped. Residents in the process of being liberated from the harsh rule of ISIS were warned to stay in their homes. Then those very homes were bombed, those residents killed. The number of innocent civilians whose lives were taken is still being totaled, but it looks bad. Over 200 civilians, including women and children, have been counted so far. The Vice President of Iraq calls the air strike a “humanitarian disaster.” He seems to be right.

Our President is said by those around him to be unlikely to take responsibility for rapid-fire decisions and a lack of adequate preparation in that latest mass casualty.

But now we have Syria.

Sometimes reflexive action does bring good results. But that is largely a matter of luck. Good results are more likely when risks are calculated and alternatives are examined.

Those seeking a solution to nuclear missiles in Cuba saw no answer that did not involve war. President Kennedy wanted another way. They, and he, created a better alternative.

Human reflex in the face of tragic human need calls for immediacy. Something must be done.

Human wisdom, when possible, calls for thought. Human power calls for care.

What must be done is not something.
What must be done is the right thing.

When our leaders can’t think of the right thing, sometimes what must be done is to think harder.

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